Breaking News: The State of the News Media

I have a soft spot for hard news. Every year, at around this time, I have students read the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, which starts with this stirring preamble.

March 17, 2011

I have a soft spot for hard news. Every year, at around this time, I have students read the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, which starts with this stirring preamble.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.

It goes on to list principles, such as

  • Seek the truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  • Act independently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
  • Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

It reminds me that librarians and journalists have some things in common, including similar economic and cultural challenges, ones largely triggered by the digital shift.

The annual State of the News Media report is out this week, and though the news isn't as catastrophic as in the past two years, it's not good. In 2010, more people went online for their news than ever before. More money was spent on online advertising than print advertising, but that revenue stream had to be shared with new partners. Nearly half of advertising associated with the news comes through search engines, and news organizations get only a revenue trickle from that source. Funding remains a significant problem, particularly for newspapers, which have shed 30% of newsroom jobs since 2000.

But what the report identifies as the most significant trend is that news organizations and readers are growing disconnected. As the report says, "it may be that in the digital realm the news industry is no longer in control of its own future."

In other words, it's not the economy, stupid. It's who controls information - and that's not just an economic question.

In the past few weeks, thanks to HarperCollins new limits on how many times a library can circulate an e-book (giving them a much shorter shelf-life than a printed book) a lot of librarians woke up to the fact that when we license digital information, we're subject to terms of service that leave us without control of our collections. Academic librarians have grown inured to that trade-off. It no longer seems to worry us that we pay a lot for temporary access to the academic record, and if we can't afford to keep paying, that access will be turned off and we have absolutely nothing to show for it. Public libraries are still in the "what? that's outrageous!" stage.

News organizations and libraries are both figuring out how difficult it is to fulfill readers' expectations in a new digital environment when the old ways of funding information no longer apply. Both institutions have suffered the consequences of the concentration of corporate owners, ones whose primary mission is to make money. Today, of the top 25 newspapers in the nation, 7 are owned by hedge funds. Libraries are more heavily used than ever, and news organizations still provide most of the news content that we rely on. But we have less money to provide resources and news, and our coping strategy has been to cut costs. Once we've cut our costs to the minimum, then what do we do?

A couple of trends suggest what 2011 holds for the news media. On Thursday, the New York Times finally released the details of its new policy to charge a subscription to readers who visit their website often. Perhaps emboldened by the fact that consumers suddenly seem willing to pay for otherwise free access through their iPads and Kindles, they have studied the wreckage of their failed "Times Select" program and come up with a more nuanced strategy. People who come to the Times through tweets and Facebook links can read all they want. Those who approach it through Google will have a limit of five visits a day before they have to pay. Directly through the website? The front pages are free. For the rest, you get 20 articles a month, but have to pay for the 21st. Unlike their old paywall, all of the content is sharable, which will keep it flowing through the web's circulatory system. But those who use the website as their daily paper will have to become subscribers. Not everyone is happy about the price or the new limits - as I write this, the story has already attracted over 2,000 comments - but it strikes me as an interesting approach, and one that makes a lot more sense than a solid paywall in an era when readers want to share what they read.

Is there an alternative? AOL thinks so. The 2010 State of the Media report said that new hires balanced out newsroom layoffs, but most of the new jobs - about 1,000 - were created as AOL moved aggressively into news, or at least into "content creation." In February 2011, after making a number of purchases, AOL bought the Huffington Post (and promptly shed 900 jobs).What's more significant is that the news philosophy behind AOL does not bear much similarity to the SPJ's Code of Ethics. Instead of seeking the truth and reporting it, AOL editors use an algorithm called SEED, which Ken Auletta in the New Yorker described in a January profile of AOL's CEO. SEED is "based on the idea that editors can figure out what stories to assign by mining data from search engines like Google and social networks like Facebook. If algorithms can tell you what people are talking about, and what they're searching for, then you know what they want to read." Apparently people don't want to read about foreign countries. While the New York Times spends millions reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, AOL has no foreign correspondents.

There's another kind of seeding going on. Those who write for AOL are supposed to plant as many words and phrases as possible that will boost a story's ranking, also known as "search engine optimization." You figure out what makes a story rise in Google results and tailor your content accordingly, a cat and mouse game that keeps Google's engineers hopping. Last month, an internal document was leaked to Business Insider that spells out AOL's alternative to a code of ethics. It's called the "AOL Way" and it sounds a little like the Chicago way. Seek what's popular and make it more so. Act according to what will drive pageviews. You're accountable to the bottom line. In blunt terms, it has become a content farm, and the harvest is all about advertising.

Compared to that model, I find I don't really mind paying for news the old fashioned way. (I'm already a print subscriber to the Times.) And by the way, if you want to read that fascinating article by Ken Auletta, you will have to subscribe to the New Yorker. Or you can almost certainly find it in a library database - at least, for as long as we can afford them.


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